April Cassidy was my best friend from the first day of first grade in September of 1972, until a couple of months later, when she failed to show up for school. During the weeks following her disappearance, as leaf-littered lawns succumbed to snow, and eighteen and a half minutes of White House chatter were lost into the ether, I rubbed a pink eraser over the memory of my friend and wiped the loose leaf clean. So clean, it took thirty-five years and a production of Medea to unleash her. And when she emerged, thus began my descent.
“Where are we?” Mark whispered, too loudly, as he slipped into the seat next to mine twelve minutes after curtain.
“Corinth,” I said.
He took off his coat and stole a peek at his BlackBerry. “No, I meant who’s he and why’s she yelling?”
Mark had bought us the tickets to see Medea, to get us out of the apartment and away from the kids. Maybe, he’d joked, we’d even hold hands. But he’d been held up late at his office again, though we’d planned to meet for dinner before the show.
“That’s Jason,” I whispered. “And she’s yelling at him because she’s angry.”
“Sounds familiar,” said Mark. “What’d he do?”
“Broke his promises.” I wrapped the wool coat I’d draped over my chair around my shoulders. I was feeling slightly feverish, chilled. Tess had been sick with the flu, and I’d been up with her every night, pouring sticky, pink cupfuls of Motrin down her throat, which she would then throw up into my lap while I held a cold washcloth to her forehead to bring down her temperature. I’d suggested to Mark that maybe we should sell our tickets, postpone the date, but he’d said, “No, let’s just go. It’ll be great. I promise.”
“Broke which promises?” he said.
“Shh,” said the woman behind us.
I took a pen out of my purse and wrote on the back of my program, “He promised to meet her for dinner and didn’t.”
Mark’s smile was weary. “Very funny, Lizard.” My name is Elizabeth, but Mark only uses it when he’s upset. He calls me Liza in bed, Zab from another room (“Za-ab! Have you seen my glasses?”), and Lizzie-bean when he wants to make light of my grumblings. “Oh, is my little Lizzie-bean lonely at night?” he’d said recently, rubbing my cheek with the back of his finger. “Poor Lizzie-bean.” After which I told him to go fuck himself. After which he suggested we go see Medea together. Just the two of us. On a date. Lizard is kind of his catchall, covering the bases from appreciation to contrition. “Look, I’m sorry,” he whispered, “I tried to call, but — ”
I put my finger to my lips, not wanting to hear another excuse. “He’s leaving her,” I scribbled, “for another woman.”
Mark let loose a tiny laugh-grunt and grabbed hold of my hand. Then he whispered, barely audibly, “Well at least you can’t complain about that from me.”
True. He didn’t have a mistress, in the corporeal sense, but he did have a mistress of a different sort. He wasn’t having sex with her. He was poring over data in her. Writing formulas in her. Typing emails in her. Until eleven, twelve o’clock every night.
Like many of his former colleagues, Mark had been lured away from the math department at CUNY when Lortex, a Texas-based insurance firm, called and asked him to consult on their latest project, using neural networks to fine-tune actuarial charts. The idea, he’d explained to me, his voice all aflutter, was to completely shatter the paradigm of risk management. Instead of assessing risk for various groups of people, he was going to try to figure out a way to predict the actual hour, within a plus or minus range of seventy-two hours, of a single individual’s demise. If it worked, we’d have the first financial cushion of our working lives. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be any worse off than we were now, which is to say, like anyone making a go of New York without funds modified by trust or hedge, struggling to keep up with the rent. “It’ll mean a few late nights,” he’d said, offhandedly, “nothing major.” He estimated six months before a working prototype could be built. Seven at the most. But three years and several hundred late nights later, his model, he’d recently admitted, still wasn’t correlating with reality. “Oh really?” I’d snapped. “Well neither is ours.”
I focused my attention back on the play. The actress playing Medea was beginning to cloy, playing the role like a put-upon housewife, her shoulders sloped inward, her delivery mousy. Medea should have been strong in her fury, full of bluster and brawn. Or at least worthy of her spotlight as a Greek hero. “I will kill,” she kept muttering. “I will kill.” But she didn’t seem capable of icing a cake, much less her offspring.
“Remember you started this war of words,” Jason was now shouting, from stage left. “As for your complaints about this marriage, I’ll show you that in this I’m being wise, and moderate, and very friendly to you, and to my children.”
My mind wandered off the stage and back to our narrow floor-through on West Eighty-fifth Street: to the vestibule overflowing with mini-coats and solitary mittens; to Tess’s stuffed animals flung across the parquet like bodies at Antietem; to the forlorn ticktock of the kitchen clock once the girls had been tucked into bed. A few days earlier, Daisy had taped a new drawing to the refrigerator: three figures, a mother and two daughters, with the words my famly stenciled in block letters across the top. “You forgot the i,” I’d said, “between the m and the l.” It didn’t seem fair to point out the other omission. The missing i could be easily replaced; the missing we not so easily. I suggested, perhaps too nervously, that Daisy put the drawing in her special box, to keep it safe from the ravages of sticky fingers and spilled grape juice. “Don’t worry, Mom. We can keep it out,” she’d said. “Daddy won’t notice.”
The curtain fell. The houselights came up. I extricated my now clammy hand from Mark’s. “You’re right,” I whispered, “at least I don’t have to worry about you and another woman.”
Because I’d waited for Mark outside the theater before the play, instead of going to the bathroom as I’d needed, I spent intermission waiting my turn to use one of the three stalls available, watching the men move in and out of their facilities with the efficiency of cars on an assembly line. I pictured the inside of their bathroom, the wall of urinals like stops on a conveyor belt, the swift zip-release-zip motion of fingers and genitals, the hands washed and dried or perhaps not, with nary a glance in the mirror, while on our side precious time was lost to spreading toilet paper over seats, pulling down hose, hiking up skirts, tugging on tampons, locating flushing mechanisms, pulling up hose, straightening out skirts, and fidgeting with locks which never seemed to want to close. “Can you hold this door for me?” we’d ask each other. Or “Does anyone have any paper? Mine’s out.” And wads of paper would pass from stall to stall, and this one would hold that one’s door shut, and more time would be lost, more minutes wasted.
And as I stood there in line and waited, mentally transforming each woman in front of me into a giant uterus, giving birth to other girls, other uteruses, telescoping out one by one from the original like the matrioshka dolls Tess used to love to split open and toss about the living room floor, heads rolling under couches, torsos under chairs, which every night I carefully gathered and reassembled, so she could scatter them once again, I thought about all those mothers and mothers-to-be, chugging along, finding detours around all those inconveniences and compromises that would have to be weighed and measured and fought over and swallowed while the men went about their business, zip-release-zip, unhampered and unfettered, along the conveyor belts of their lives.
“You were in the bathroom this whole time?” Mark said, with a slight tone of annoyance, as the houselights blinked and the bodies hustled back into their seats.
“No,” I said. “I was in Stockholm. Fetching my Nobel. Want to see it?”
“I thought we were supposed to talk.”
“Yes, that was the plan.” But now we’d have to rush home after the play to relieve the babysitter we could ill afford, and I’d check my email or maybe read, and Mark would plant himself in front of his computer to surf the porn sites he thought I didn’t know about, and I’d check on the girls and probably pass out on the couch watching the end of Jon Stewart, still in my clothes, and Mark would try to rouse me but fail, and I’d awake with a start, maybe two am, maybe three, and hit the power on the remote and stumble my way in the dark to our bedroom, liberating breasts and limbs from straps and buttons and saying to hell with the toothbrush, and I’d see Mark passed out on top of the duvet, a chalk outline of himself, and I’d slip in under the covers on my side of the bed, wishing I’d remembered to grab a glass of water, diving into dreams about sinking ships and quicksand sidewalks, and then the window would lighten, the alarm would go off, another day would begin. “Maybe we can talk next week,” I said.
On stage, Jason and the children departed to deliver the poisoned robe and crown to Creon’s daughter. Medea paced around the stage, finally gathering strength now, like a tropical storm. And then, just as Medea began to slaughter her children (tastefully, behind a scrim), just as the lamentations and wails began to echo throughout the house, and the blood began to splatter across the scrim, crimson Rorschach blots arousing the sleepy unconscious, April Cassidy, wearing a pair of red shorts, burst forth into my mind’s eye.
Come play! she was saying, or so it seemed, or so I thought, It’s been so long. And I saw her blue lips and heard the phantom words spoken as clearly as if they’d been uttered by Medea’s children themselves, who were shouting, pleading, begging to be saved: “Yea, by heaven I adjure you; your aid is needed! Even now the toils of the sword are closing round us . . .”
I rubbed my eyes, thinking the hallucination a trick of exhaustion, of a flulike fever now palpably mounting and no longer possible to ignore. But the harder I rubbed, the clearer the vision became.
“Mark,” I said, tugging on his shirt, “I’m having a . . . I think I’m hallucina . . . help.” This last word was spoken feebly. My heart beat inside my chest like a sneaker in a dryer.
Mark looked at me, genuinely concerned. “What is it, Z?” He put his hand on my forehead. “Oh my god, Lizzie. You’re burning up.”
I felt the theater closing in on me, the stage lights pulsing and swirling as if the psychedelic pyrotechnics were about to kick in. I needed a blast of January air, space to breathe, light. “I’ve got to get out of here,” I whispered to my neighbor, “I’m so sorry,” and I stood up and held onto the seat in front of me for balance. Which is when, according to my husband, the woman behind us yelled, “Jesus! Sit down and shut up already!” and Mark’s BlackBerry went off, and the actress playing Medea flubbed her line about feeble lust and ruin, and I fainted, hitting my head on the armrest on the way down.
Excerpted from BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL © Copyright 2008 by Deborah Copaken Kogan. Reprinted with permission by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved.
Between Here and April